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Putin Clamps Down: A Chilling Report From Moscow

Pussy Riot was just the start. How Russia is turning into a dark nation of fear, paranoia and repression

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Russian police officers detain members of the Pussy Riot punk group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, center right, and Maria Alekhina, center left, outside a court room in Moscow, Russi

Denis Tyrin/AP Photo

“Nadya, pay the bill,” Masha Alyokhina says impatiently, taking a drag of her cigarette.

“OK, OK,” says Nadya Tolokonnikova. She stubs out her own cigarette, reaches into her bag and languidly hands the waitress her Visa card. The woman looks at the two a little tensely. Does she recognize them? Maybe.

Photos: Inside the Pussy Riot Trial

Nadya and Masha, the women generally referred to as Pussy Riot, have been eating lunch at Il Patio, a casual Italian chain restaurant in a shopping mall near the Tulskaya Metro station in southern Moscow. It’s an early-spring afternoon, and Russia’s most famous dissidents, members of the riot-grrrl-inspired, anti-Putin “punk collective,” are free of their neon balaclavas and trying to keep a low profile, which is tough enough without reporters tagging along. “We’re going to München,” says Masha, a chirpy, black-clad 25-year-old with a cascade of frizzy blond hair, held back by a sparkly green headband.

“Munich,” says Nadya, a quieter, almost ethereal, pouty-lipped 24-year-old brunette in a black-and-white polka-dot miniskirt. She runs her elegant dark-blue lacquered nails through her hair and adjusts her white chiffon T-shirt with some annoyance. “We’re going to Munich.”

The women plan to attend a screening of a documentary: Pussy vs. Putin. After that comes music week in Estonia. Then Brussels and New York. Ever since their release from prison in December, having been convicted in August 2012 of “hooliganism,” the duo have been on a human rights tour through Western capitals, meeting with activists in Paris, attending a film festival in Berlin, dining with Madonna, chatting with Stephen Colbert, having their photo taken with Hillary Clinton.

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina: ‘I Was Always Free Because I Felt Free’

In Russia, where state television screams of Western aggression and “fascist” plots in eastern Ukraine, things are far less glamorous. Here, if Pussy Riot are mentioned at all in the media, it’s as “traitors,” “demons” or “agents of Western influence.” Their arrest in March 2012 for performing what they called a punk prayer at Moscow’s central cathedral – an act of guerrilla theater that was immediately denounced as “blasphemy” by the Russian Orthodox Church – led to one of the most Kafkesque show trials in recent Russian history, after which the women were sentenced to two years in prison. Sixteen months and several frigid penal colonies later, they emerged defiant – Nadya walked out of her Siberian prison camp, flashing a victory sign and shouting, “Russia without Putin!” – to continue the struggle.

Since then, they’ve been detained, interrogated, even horsewhipped by Cossacks guarding the Sochi Olympics (an event Pussy Riot exploited in full, making the horsewhipping a feature of their YouTube video, “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland”). A few weeks before I met them, the women were eating breakfast at a McDonald’s in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod when they were attacked by a group of men who doused them in wallpaper glue, dumped garbage on their heads and sprayed them with a noxious green antiseptic called zelyonka, which has recently become popular in attacks on Ukrainian opposition.

“And not only that,” says Nadya. “Masha was also beaten.” Masha turns around to show me the scar near her hairline – she’d been hit with a flying metal bucket.

Their attackers, they later learned, were on the payroll of a local police official. “That’s not unusual,” says Nadya.

“This official even wrote about it on Twitter,” says Masha. “He got a promotion.”

To most western audiences, Pussy Riot, notably Masha and Nadya, are the face of Russian activism and opposition to President Vladimir Putin. But while they are easily the most famous Russian protesters in the world, they are a radical sliver of a much larger and more fractious “protest culture,” in the words of writer Masha Gessen, whose members haven’t been horsewhipped, but have in some ways suffered a far worse and much less celebrated fate: collapse. “Pussy Riot are the first real dissidents of the Putin era, but like all dissidents they’re individual actors, perpetually out on a limb,” says Gessen, author of Words Will Break Cement, a chronicle of the group’s rise. “Their actions have had dire but clear consequences, and in return for the hardships they’ve faced, they have received a voice and a mission. The larger protest culture, on the other hand, is at this point either totally disintegrated or, in the case of a few dissidents, trying to keep protest alive in the face of greater and greater risk. There’s really no hope for change. Russia has become a dark and dangerous place.”

I’ve come to Moscow to find out just how bad things have gotten for those who oppose Putin’s regime. It seems like the right time: The Sochi Olympics are long over, the annexation of Crimea is well under way, and Russian forces have moved into Eastern Ukraine, where they are operating with impunity. The country is, at least according to reports, awash with patriotism. This is not readily apparent. As many as 50,000 people turned out for an anti-war rally in Moscow a few days before I arrive, dwarfing a government-sponsored pro-war rally down the street. Though the Kremlin has requested that those who support the actions in Ukraine hang a Russian flag from their window, I see only a handful. On the other hand, polls show that Russians overwhelmingly support the actions in Crimea, something almost every Muscovite I meet swears is true, and Putin’s approval ratings are at a three-year high.

Two and a half years ago, things were vastly different. A spirit of defiance spread through Russia, after Putin, who’d stepped aside in 2008 to become Russia’s prime minister, announced he’d be returning to the presidency. More than 100,000 people streamed into the streets of Moscow in December 2011, and over the coming months, a heady idealism infected not just the tiny left but also large swaths of the educated urban middle and upper classes, who “felt like their human dignity had been affronted,” in the words of Artemy Troitsky, a professor at Moscow State University and one of the country’s leading cultural critics. “This was an insult to millions of people in Russia. They hadn’t been asked – they’d just been told that Putin would again be the president, and there was nothing they could do about it.”

But the opposition was disorganized – the most unified statement anyone could actually come up with was “No more Putin!” – and the revolutionary spirit that briefly seized the nation soon faded. Now Russia has entered a new phase, something Troitsky recently dubbed “Staliban”: a meld of Soviet-style totalitarianism and ultraconservative orthodoxy, highlighted by vast distrust and moral superiority toward the “decadent” West. It’s an appeal that plays well with many Russians, who lost much of their identity with the collapse of the Soviet Union; it has also worked undeniably well for Putin, who until 2012 seemed to lack a cohesive ideology. “For a Russian leader, that was quite unheard of,” says writer Anna Arutunyan, whose recent book, The Putin Mystique, offers a piercing analysis of Russia’s power structure. “The tsars adhered to a messianic idea of Russia as the chosen people, and in many ways communism was a continuation of that idea. When Putin came back for his third term, he realized he had to find something unifying. He couldn’t tap into communism, but he tapped into that pre-revolutionary idea of orthodoxy and autocracy.” As a result, the Russia we see today – call it Sovietism with a tsarist face – is not based on the political reality but, as Russian political analyst Aleksandr Morozov noted, “a political myth.”

A big part of that myth is the specter of America as a malign and meddling force. Within the Kremlin, notes Marat Guelman, a former adviser to the Russian government, there is serious discussion about the psychological warfare waged against Russia by the United States, as if the Cold War never ended: “They truly believe that there is an organization in D.C. that is working day and night on destroying Russia.”

Since Putin’s re-election, Russia’s state-controlled media (which, by now, is virtually the entire Russian media) has relentlessly pushed the idea that NATO troops could be at the border, threatening the sovereignty of Eastern Europe. Among the more compelling forms of propaganda: a series of “investigative” documentaries like the two-part Anatomy of a Protest or The Biochemistry of Treason, which aired during the Olympics and, using carefully interspersed clips – Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, Pussy Riot, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad – accused the U.S. of secretly plotting to overthrow the Russian Federation.

In service to this ideology, all opponents of Putin’s policies – notably, the recent incursion in Ukraine – have been marked as “nationalist traitors.” The Russian Ministry of Culture recently floated a policy that would cut off support to artists whose work “exerts a negative influence on society” by presenting a “liberal Western” point of view. Shortly before I arrived in Moscow, several independent news sites and blogs, including one belonging to opposition figure Alexei Navalny, were blocked. For a time, if you clicked on it, you’d get a picture of a yellow-eyed goat.

Navalny, a 37-year-old attorney and anti­corruption crusader who many consider the only viable opposition leader, has been under house arrest since February, accused of embezzling funds, a charge he denies and claims is politically motivated. Another leading opposition figure, Sergei Udaltsov, is also under house arrest. His movement, known as the Left Front, is largely shut down.

Shortly before being placed under house arrest, Navalny was detained while protesting the sentencing of eight people who’d taken part in a rally on the eve of Putin’s third inauguration, in 2012. A total of 27 people had been charged in connection with “inciting mass riots” in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, where tens of thousands had gathered, and clashes – incited, by most accounts, by police and special-forces units – had broken out. Among the accused: a scientist, an artist, a young father, two former marines, several students and a reportedly mentally unstable man who is now serving 12 years in a psychiatric institution. The message, as Gessen notes, was indisputable: “If you go to a protest, you risk everything.”

One of the people who risked, and lost, was 30-year-old Maria Baronova. A tall, husky-voiced blonde with a chemistry degree and a no-bullshit penchant for mouthing off to the authorities, Baronova was, for a short while, one of the most visible protesters in Moscow – The New Republic dubbed her the “It girl of the Russian opposition” – though she ultimately became disillusioned. “They were losers, completely unprofessional,” she says. “The luckiest people just quit.”

Baronova was typical of many who joined the protests in 2011 and 2012. A sales manager for a chemical distributor, she’d lived a comfortable life with her husband and young son, and until the mid-2000s, she’d been staunchly pro-Putin. “But I got tired of always seeing the same guy,” she says. “I want to have a country like America, where we know this dude might be the president for eight years, and maybe he’s fucked up, but then there will be another president.”

Like many of her friends, Baronova threw her support behind Dmitry Medvedev when Putin stepped aside, allowing his successor to become Russia’s new president. “We really thought he was our guy,” she says. And for about a year, it looked promising. An avid tweeter, Medvedev tried to build a mini-Silicon Valley outside Moscow in the hopes of retaining Russian tech whizzes and talked repeatedly about “modernization.” He spoke of reforming Russia’s arcane justice system, which he described – accurately, many felt – as “legal nihilism,” and encouraged independent media to serve as a check on government corruption. Though his catchphrases weren’t always elegant – “Freedom is better than unfreedom” – even the policy wonks in Washington began to talk about a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations.

“The Obama people had this insane idea that they could bank on Medvedev,” says Gessen, who wrote a biography of Putin, The Man Without a Face. “Like, if they put the eggs in the Medvedev basket, that would make him a legitimate president.”

In truth, Medvedev was a place-holder – it was Putin who pulled the strings. Many Russians knew this, of course, “but it’s like being in the last stages of cancer – you want to hope,” says Baronova. “We hoped that Medvedev would find his balls on his bookshelf, put them on and fight.”

When he didn’t, Baronova – now divorced and working as a press secretary for a member of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament – took to the streets. “I think most of us who came out were tired. We were tired of this social system of kickbacks and bribes, where maybe you could become rich, but everything around you is going deeper into a hole.”

Rattled by the protests, Putin fired his senior adviser Vladislav Surkov, and publicly resorted to crude put-downs. In one of his most memorable statements, Putin remarked that he’d mistaken the white ribbons worn by the protesters for condoms, prompting a number of people to come dressed as giant condoms to a subsequent rally. Wary of government push-back, the protesters played by the rules, generally conducting only “sanctioned” protests, permitted by the state.

But after Putin’s election in March 2012, the hammer came down. On May 6th, the eve of his inauguration, almost 70,000 people showed up in Bolotnaya Square, some carrying signs portraying Putin as a rat, to be met by riot police. Soon tear-gas canisters were flying and police and special-forces cops began dragging protesters at random into paddy wagons.

After the rally, the crackdowns began, starting with a series of new amendments to the public-assembly law, which set fines for individuals taking part in an “unauthorized protest” as high as 300,000 rubles (about $8,380). A second and even more crucial change in the law gave the prosecutor’s office unlimited discretion on whom to prosecute. “It used to be that only the people who applied for the permit for a rally would be prosecuted,” says Gessen. “Now, though, the prosecutor’s office can choose who is responsible. That broadened the number of targets from well-known organizers who always knew they were at risk to any rank-and-file participant. And that’s what happened with the Bolotnaya case.”

One month after the protest, Baronova’s apartment was raided by agents of the Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of the FBI. They took her books, laptop, family photos – pretty much everything – and charged her, along with 26 others, for their connection to the “mass riots.” Over the next year and a half, Baronova lost her job, her apartment, many of her friends and her boyfriend – who “ditched” her, she later said, “because he could not stand the mess in my life.” Under what she called “city arrest” – not jailed, but unable to leave Moscow – she was watched by the authorities, who harassed her by coming into her apartment and moving the furniture around or turning the burners up on her stove, both commonplace scare tactics. Baronova tried not to care. “Just pretend like nothing happened,” she says. “That’s the only way to get used to it. Pretend that no one wrote notes on my door threatening to kill me and my son.”

In December 2013, Baronova was “amnestied,” along with a number of others, including Nadya and Masha of Pussy Riot, in what was seen as an effort to clean up Russia’s human rights image in advance of the Sochi Olympics. When I meet Baronova, she’s sipping mint tea at a French cafe. “Fuck activists and all this insanity,” she says. “I need Mars – that’s the best place to live.” She takes a long drag of her cigarette and shrugs. “On the other hand, maybe because of this insanity, things will be reformed in the next 20 years, who knows. Probably this country will be torn apart in 10 years.”

It would be easy to blame what is happening in Russia wholly on Putin, or to equate it with a reconstituted Soviet Union, a USSR 2.0 – which many do. But the picture is more complex. Many Muscovites with whom I spoke have seen Putin, especially before the crisis in Ukraine, as a victim of the system as much as they are. “He is no longer a leader,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant and former Kremlin spin doctor, who was one of the architects of Putin’s 2000 campaign. “He’s a functionary of a machine that sucked him in, and it broke him. We have built a government that buys loyalty from its functionaries and the population, but nobody actually manages the country.”

Take Moscow: It looks, and in many ways feels, just like any modern European or American city. There are good roads, nice hotels, subways that run on time and functioning ATMs. Everyone drives a Hyundai or a Mercedes or a Ford Focus, carries an iPhone or an iPad or both, hangs out at Starbucks and shops at Ikea. There are gigantic malls with chains like Topshop, Uniqlo, H&M, even TGI Friday’s, as well as countless upscale bistros and cafes founded by celebrity chefs that cater to the new elite. Festive blue and white lights adorn the trees. People walk tiny dogs. There’s great Wi-Fi.

Go beneath this surface normalcy, though, and you realize that Moscow, which, initially, kind of feels like Chicago, is actually more like Lagos, Nigeria, pretending to be Chicago. In addition to the more mundane examples of inefficiency and dysfunction – extortionist taxi drivers, blasé-to-the-point-of-comatose waiters, choking smog – there are more surreal indignities. My translator, Khristina Narizhnaya, a Russian-American writer now living in Moscow, recently went to a clinic with what she thought was a mild infection, and was told she had a serious kidney ailment, requiring five antibiotics, a series of IV drips and some light surgery, all of which she had to pay for in advance. As it turned out, she was perfectly healthy.

Getting any kind of official document in Russia – a passport, a business permit – can take months. On the other hand, you can very easily buy pretty much anything you want – a university degree, a driver’s license, a Ph.D. certificate – in no time. And yet somehow, people take this in stride. To many, Putin, despite presiding over what is often described to me as an authoritarian police state run by a tiny, kleptocratic elite – the so-called power vertical – has fulfilled his promise to bring “stability” to Russia. “For Putin, all of this is very easy,” says Ilya Ponomarev, who was the only member of the Duma to vote against the annexation of Crimea. “All anyone has to do is say the word ‘Yeltsin.’ Everybody would choose Putin over Yeltsin in Russia, even the opposition.”

Russians are still traumatized by the economic and social free-fall of the 1990s, a chaotic experiment with “democracy” that gave birth to tremendous innovation, including Russia’s first truly independent media, but also collapsed the economy and upended the social order. Baronova’s mother, for instance, a university scientist, lost all of her money, and had to exist on what amounted to just a few dollars a month. To survive, they grew vegetables at her grandparents’ house and stored them in their garage for the winter. “I know how to hunt,” Baronova says with distaste. “I can catch a fish – not because it’s fun, because it’s food.” She fixes me with a penetrating stare. “Do you know who is the worst person in all of Russian history? Mikhail Gorbachev. He lost our country.” He also brought Russians their first taste of freedom, she admits. “I mean, wow! Freedom! It’s so gross that we hate him, but we hate him.”

Baronova, like a number of Muscovites I meet, has a strange nostalgia for a country she never really knew. She was seven when the Soviet Union was dissolved, yet she speaks of it with reverence. “I am proud of being born in the Soviet Union, when we were a superpower,” she says. In one recent poll, almost 50 percent of Russians said they would gladly trade high living standards for Russia to be a country feared by others, like the U.S. “I was born in the center of an empire,” says Baronova. “And then we were humiliated.”

Putin seemed to offer Russians a welcome relief from the pain. Despite being Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, he was young, strong, sober – the anti-Yeltsin. A former KGB colonel, he was, at heart a bureaucrat. After his election in 1999, Putin proceeded to rein in the country’s oligarchs, who’d privatized much of Russia’s natural resources. Because of rising oil prices, the doors were opened to the West, flooding the market with imports. Russians began to take vacations again. An entire generation – Baronova’s – forgot the privations of the Nineties and embraced the materialism of the Aughts.

But Putin also clamped down on dissent, silencing – with arrest and prosecution – those who challenged his leadership. In 2003, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Yukos, Russia’s biggest oil company, was charged with fraud and sent to prison for 10 years after accusing the Kremlin of corruption during a televised meeting with Putin. The government also moved to rein in the broadcast and print media, which had flourished under Yeltsin, replacing independent-minded owners with ones who’d toe the party line. Those who refused were beaten or killed. Between 2000 and 2013, two dozen journalists – and likely many more – were killed for reporting in Russia, most of their cases still unsolved. Among the most famous were Anna Politkovskaya, an award-winning investigative reporter, and Paul Klebnikov, the American-born editor of the Russian edition of Forbes. The Committee to Protect Journalists has consistently described Russia as one of the deadliest countries to be a journalist, outranked only by places like Colombia and Iraq.

Some of the earliest attacks on the media took place even as Putin was making overtures to the West. But by 2004, whatever warmth he might have felt for America and then-president George W. Bush (who’d nicknamed him “Pootie-Poot”) had cooled. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of that year had a deep impact on Putin, who saw U.S. support for Ukranian activists as a Western ploy to invade Russia’s border. “It was a misinterpretation, really – the neurotic reaction of a weak country,” says Pavlovsky. “But when you had revolutions in Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, and you heard George Bush declare that all of this together was part of the American doctrine of spreading democracy, Putin saw it as a threat.”

By 2005, Pavlovsky notes, Putin was morphing from a bureaucrat to “lord protector” of Russia. The state security services, notably the FSB, the successor to the KGB, emerged from a relatively broken state to one of immense power: charged with not only rooting out Russia’s “enemies” but also with preserving “sovereign democracy.” In a classic example of doublespeak, the term was intended to convey to the West that Russia was acting in accordance with democratic norms. In fact, the opposite was true. There was now one major party, the United Russia Party, headed by Vladimir Putin, from whom every decision flowed.

“Putin didn’t invent authoritarianism in Russia, but he’s perfecting it,” says Peter Baker, former Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post and co-author of Kremlin Rising. “And while there is a part of society that really does want more freedom and more democracy, many Russians are perfectly comfortable with the idea of a strong leader and centralized power.” Baker adds that during the mid-2000s, when he was living in Moscow, about 25 percent of Russians polled said they would vote for Stalin if he were still alive. “That’s important context for understanding why Putin has stayed on top for so long,” he says.

Under Putin’s autocratic rule, Kremlin propagandists increasingly warn of a “fifth column” composed of journalists and activists who, with backing from the West, are working to destroy the Russian state. With most independent media abolished, “loyalty” has once again become a core value for the journalistic venues that remain. In March, a pro-Kremlin political website announced it had produced a top-20 list of “anti-Russian” news outlets, based on a special algorithm it had developed to vet media content for key words and phrases that cast Russia and its current actions in Ukraine in a negative light. Among the dangerous terms: annexation, aggression, sanctions and any positive references to Ukrainian activists or thier protests. At the end of March, one influential political adviser, Aleksandr Dugin, posted the list on his Facebook page: “This is the order in which Russia’s most contemptible media outlets will be closed or blocked,” he said.

Near the top of the list was Dozhd, Russia’s last independent TV station. “Rain” TV, as it’s known in English, claims to be the first Russian news channel to broadcast from the protests in Ukraine and has produced hard­hitting investigations into government corruption. Founded in 2010 as an alternative to the state propaganda channels, the station views itself not as “opposition” but as more of a Russian MSNBC, says deputy editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko. “The problem is that in Russia today, independence is opposition.”

Rain, which is run and managed almost entirely by Muscovites in their twenties and early thirties, is headquartered in the former Red October chocolate factory, once a symbol of Soviet Russia that has been repurposed as a yuppie-hipsterish hangout on the Moscow River. Like Baronova, who until recently worked as a science correspondent at Rain, Dzyadko, 26, and Rain’s editor-in-chief, Mikhail Zygar, 33, fit that description, though they can vividly recall growing up in the Soviet system, albeit from different sides.

Zygar is the son of a KGB officer and as a boy was a member of the Young Pioneers, the Soviet equivalent of the Boy Scouts. “We were taught that Ronald Reagan was Satan,” he says, smiling. “I hated the United States.” Dzyadko’s family are well-known dissidents: One great-grandfather was killed during Stalin’s purges, and Dzyadko’s maternal grandparents spent years in Siberian exile in the 1980s for publishing “anti-Soviet” literature, before being pardoned by Gorbachev in 1987. “For that reason, I must thank Gorbachev – he released my grandfather from prison,” Dzyadko says.

Rain calls itself “the Optimistic Channel,” which is ironic, given that its target audience, educated young professionals, are the same people currently at the center of Russia’s “brain drain” – many of Zygar’s and Dzyadko’s peers are either planning to leave Russia or have already left. While they are committed to staying, says Zygar, they are also struggling to stay on the air. Long on the Kremlin’s radar, Rain ran afoul of the government in January after it put out a poll asking readers if they felt the siege of Leningrad, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed defending the city against the Nazis, was worth the cost of so many Russian lives. “That was our mistake,” says Dzyadko.

Russians take great pride, to the point of obsession, in their victory in World War II, the signature military achievement of the Soviet Union. “If you think you’re this strong, great country who won World War II, you don’t think about corruption, alcoholism, dirty hospitals,” says Dzyadko. In daring to question the Soviet leadership, Rain broke a sacred rule. “To criticize Soviet leadership is a form of heresy – it means you support Hitler,” says Zygar.

Shortly after they posted the Leningrad question, Rain received a torrent of angry tweets, mostly generated, they believed, by a handful of people on the payroll of the Kremlin, followed by a campaign of public outrage, accusing Rain employees of “fascism.” Within a month, most cable operations had dropped the channel, and it lost nearly 90 percent of its audience. “The message was loud and clear,” says Zygar. Many expect Rain will close by the end of the year, if not sooner.

“At some moment, Putin’s administration understood that it’s more effective to close whole publications instead of killing journalists one by one,” says Oleg Kashin, an investigative journalist and blogger once employed by the independent daily Kommersant, which stopped being independent in 2011, after its board of directors was slowly replaced with Kremlin loyalists. “The whole history of independent media in Russia is destroyed, everything that was created dating back 25 years, from the time of Gorbachev,” he says. “I don’t believe journalists understand this yet.”

Galina Timchenko was, until recently, the well-respected editor of Lenta.ru, the most widely read online newspaper in Russia. Then, on March 12th, she was fired, ostensibly for running an interview with a leader of a Ukrainian nationalist group that linked to a website containing “extremist” material. “The interview wasn’t extremist,” she says. “But every outlet has an owner who will, in that second, decide that this is a threat to their business.”

Not long after her firing, Timchenko and I attend a meeting of the opposition press held at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Community Center in Moscow. About 75 people, most of them rumpled and dispirited-looking middle­aged editors and human rights activists, are crowded into the shabby meeting room, drinking Lipton tea and eating oatmeal cookies off paper plates. The air reeks of desperation. “They have declared war on us, the civil society,” says Volodya Korsunsky, the gray-haired owner of Grani.ru, one of several opposition websites blocked by the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service in accordance with a new law aimed at “containing calls for unsanctioned acts of protest.”

There are actually a number of bills sitting with the Duma, each of which would silence the media in different ways. The most egregious would punish journalists who publish “anti-Russian” material with prison sentences. The bill has so far been sidelined, though “laws don’t have to be passed in Russia to be effective,” says Anna Arutunyan, who recently resigned from the Moscow News after the paper’s parent company was dissolved by the Kremlin and reconstituted as part of a new state media conglomerate.

One of the most nefarious developments in recent years has been the expansion of Russia’s surveillance state, which, far more extensive than anything the NSA might dream up, has now “reached a level that would have made the Soviet KGB envious,” says Andrei Soldatov, author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB. Under a 2012 law that greatly expanded the definition of the word “treason,” Russia’s security services can now conduct surveillance on almost anyone they want, indefinitely. In the past five years, the number of legal government wiretaps has doubled – and that says nothing about what the government may have intercepted illegally, says Soldatov.

Since 2008, Russia’s Interior Ministry, which acts as a national police force, has engaged in widespread monitoring of Russian citizens to counter “extremism,” which under Putin was expanded from describing various forms of hate speech to describe any challenge to the political order: political protest, media criticism, involvement in certain youth groups. One special police unit, the Center for Combatting Extremism, which goes by the Orwellian nickname “Center E,” has become infamous for breaking into activists’ homes and harassing them, as well as tracking their movements and compiling information on people who have been indicted on criminal charges. They also monitor people who may never have committed a crime, but who the government simply wants to keep tabs on. “We have no idea how many names are in this database,” says Soldatov.

In December 2007, a small bomb, set at the base of a lamppost, exploded near the gates of the Kremlin, in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square. One year later, a 21-year-old university student named Ivan Belousov was arrested and charged with having organized the bombing, a crime he says he didn’t commit. But Belousov fit the profile: “I was young, I was interested in civil societies, I attended different political gatherings. I can’t say I was active in street politics – I was more of a supporter.”

According to Belousov, on the day of the bombing, he was on his way to a friend’s birthday dinner, crossing Manezhnaya Square to get to the Metro. The transit system’s records showed that he scanned his Metro ticket minutes before the police claim the bomb was planted. “I was already inside the station – I even made a phone call from inside the Metro,” he says. But the police were eager to solve the case, and as Belousov later discovered, he was in the security-services database as someone who attended opposition events. In August 2009, he was convicted and sentenced to six years at a prison camp.

This past January, after years of pressure from human rights groups, Russia’s supreme court reviewed the case and overturned the verdict. On March 4th, Belousov was released from prison. A few weeks later, I meet him at the home of one of his supporters, prison-rights activist Olga Romanova. Now 27, Belousov is a boyish, friendly young man wearing a gray pullover sweater and brown corduroys. Romanova, a former business journalist who became a fixture in activist circles after her husband went to prison on what she says were trumped-up money-laundering charges, sets down plates of fish and brings out a huge bottle of homemade vodka with chili peppers. “To freedom,” she says. Belousov smiles wanly. While the court overturned his conviction, they didn’t close the case – instead, it was sent back to the prosecutor, who immediately added several new charges. “I’m under surveillance, and I could go back to prison any time,” he says. “I’m seeing this with irony.”

Romanova’s husband, Alexei Kozlov, went through a similar ordeal. Arrested in 2008, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, but was then released in 2011 – only to be rearrested, tried and convicted on the same charges and sentenced to another five years. A few days before her husband went on trial for the second time, Romanova has said, a prison official told her that they’d already prepared Kozlov’s cell. “The courts are not interested in whether he’s guilty or not,” she says. “There are no ‘not guilty’ verdicts in Russia.”

Certainly, the Pussy Riot case makes this clear. The women’s much-touted “demonic” dance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior took all of 40 seconds, yet the charges – hooliganism and “inciting religious hatred” – carried a potential seven-year jail sentence, making their actual sentence of two years look almost moderate. Nonetheless, it sent a message, says Marat Guelman, the former Russian political adviser who backed the women publicly. “Pussy Riot provoked the government to show its true face,” he says. “It showed that Putin was not, as he is often described, ‘almost European.’ An ‘almost European’ politician wouldn’t act like this. An ‘almost European’ politician can handle a little criticism.” And now, he adds, there is no turning back. “You know, back in 2009, Putin sent a message to artists: ‘Don’t take part in the opposition – be loyal, and you’ll be OK.’ Then he started staying, ‘Whoever is not with us is against us.’ ” Now, he says, Russia has entered a third stage, oprichnina, a reference to the era of Ivan the Terrible. “Ivan had a private army that had the mandate to arrest anybody . . . so everybody must be scared, you see?”

After their sentencing, Masha was sent to Perm, a region in the Ural Mountains whose infamous gulags were home to Russian dissidents of the Stalin era. Nadya was dispatched to a camp in Mordovia, whose penal colonies are known for flagrant human rights violations. “As the prisoner saying goes, ‘Those who never did time in Mordovia never did time at all,'” she said.

The gulag-like conditions included cold isolation cells, stale bread, rotten potatoes, limited “personal hygiene” areas, which were shared by 80 other women, and myriad other privations. Many of their fellow inmates were spies, reporting back to the administration what they had said – but both Masha and Nadya wrote letters and articles from prison. Due to their high profile, they weren’t beaten as badly as others. “If you weren’t Tolokonnikova,” Nadya was told, “we’d beat the shit out of you.”

One of the most important things they learned in jail, says Masha, is “you protect yourself if you know the law and have public support. Each action that we took in jail was publicized.” She doubts either of them would have survived were it otherwise.

Now the women say they are establishing a prison-advocacy group to lobby for individual prisoners as well as for general reform. “It’s pretty fantastical that they aspire to prison reform,” says Gessen, “but they have a voice of moral authority and put attention on specific abuses. As long as they stay high-profile enough in the West, they will be able to do that effectively.”

“Pussy Riot will be jailed again, and very soon,” says Artemy Troitsky, who recently spent a few days with Masha and Nadya in Estonia. “In the worst-case scenario, they will be killed, which I actually think is what they’re going for. They don’t say they want to be executed, of course, but I’ve just got this feeling they have something of a Joan of Arc complex.”

Russians now entering the third year of the crackdown see Pussy Riot as little more than a footnote. “Pussy Riot will not matter in 10 years,” says Timchenko, the former editor. “I doubt anyone will really remember.” And other opponents wonder the same about themselves. Timchenko is unemployed, which holds true for her staff, who walked out in protest after her firing. Where once every major publication in Moscow had an investigative department consisting of at least six or seven people, there are now, by recent estimates, just six investigative journalists left in all of the city.

“We were just discussing how much time we have left,” Soldatov tells me one evening when I meet him and his friend Grigory Okhotin for drinks at Deti Raika, another cafe popular with the opposition. “I’d say months – definitely not years,” says Okhotin. Soldatov looks miserable. “For me, my work is like my religion, so if I can’t be a journalist, I don’t see how I can stay in Russia,” he says.

Okhotin, a former journalist, co-founded the NGO OVD-Info, which keeps track of political detainments, after his friends were taken into police custody during the protests of 2011. Now his group’s website, which provides the names of people who’ve been detained, is a clearinghouse not only for activists and journalists who still want to report on the number of political detentions, but for the government itself. “Of course, they also collect our data and analyze it,” he says. “We are good for society, we are good for the media, but we are also good for secret services. It’s not all black and white.”

It’s ironic, the men agree, that Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who outed some of the biggest surveillance programs in U.S. history, wound up in Russia, a country with some of the most elaborate electronic eavesdropping practices­ in the world. “He was well-aware of the totalitarian nature of surveillance in Russia,” says Soldatov. Not that Russians really give it much thought, given their history. “Russians don’t care about surveillance,” he says a little sadly. “Everybody presumes there is no such thing as privacy.”

What they do care about is safety. A few years ago, Oleg Kashin, a passionate oppositionist whose prior work included a lengthy investigation into Russia’s nationalist youth movement, was brutally beaten by unknown assailants and nearly died. Now he lives in Geneva. Though he will never forget his attack, Kashin is one of a number of former activists who has made the surprising shift to support – if somewhat ambivalently – the government’s annexation of Crimea. “This regime killed, jailed, ruined many lives, and in the chain of events, annexing Crimea to Russia is not the worst thing,” Kashin recently posted on his Facebook page. It was actually the best thing Putin could have done, he noted. Because now, if everything truly goes to hell in Russia, “you can move to the Crimea in your old age.”

A similar cynicism, and deep ambivalence, can also be found in many progressive Russians’ attitudes toward the United States. During the time I am in Moscow, I hear frequently about the Russians’ anger toward America – not for anything the U.S. did recently, but for something it did in 1999. “You bombed Kosovo,” says Soldatov. “Russians don’t forgive that.” Americans may have little recollection of the NATO-led Kosovo War, but Russians, who opted out of the conflict (despite historic support for the Serbs), recall it as a seminal act of Western aggression. “We all remember what was done to Belgrade by the Nazis during World War II,” Soldatov says.

So NATO is equated with the Nazis?

“Absolutely,” he says.

Soldatov marvels at Americans’ ability to not obsess over the past. “It’s a great quality – it means you can move forward,” he says. “We can’t.” And so what’s past is prologue, the old animosities feed newer, fresher hatreds. A generation’s dream of revenge for the loss of Russian power has, to some extent, come true, and even those who bitterly opposed Putin seem not to be immune.

“I’m so happy that Crimea is back,” says Baronova. “Even after everything the state did to me, I feel proud again.” It’s an odd thing to say, but in a country where opposition has been muted and protest is pointless, what choice does she have? The activist community hasn’t done much for her – many of her friends from the protests didn’t even attend her trial. “I’m not opposition,” she says. “I’m just a normal citizen. It’s so easy to put propaganda in the heads of ordinary people.” And so Baronova has decided to stop fighting and embrace the regime. “Even people who were persecuted are now for Putin,” she says, lighting her umpteenth cigarette. She looks around the empty cafe and flashes a pained smile. “We’re really fucked up,” she says.

This story is from the May 8th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

Additional reporting by Khristina Narizhnaya.

In This Article: Pussy Riot


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